Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Julia Blackburn wins PEN/Ackerley Prize for Autobiography

julia with her father

April 27, 2008

Julia Blackburn's wild youth as a Sixties Lolita

The violent, sex-filled, bohemian home that Julia Blackburn grew up in seems like another world now


On a bright December day in 1999, a discreet wedding took place at Lowes-toft register office. To the untutored eye it was a conventional affair: the middle-aged couple surrounded by children, the reception held in a primary school with a wedding cake baked by the headmistress.

Who could have guessed the extraordinary circumstances in which Julia Blackburn and her Dutch husband, Herman, first met? In the 1960s, Blackburn was living with her mother, the painter Rosalie de Meric, in a shabby house in London where her mother took in a series of lodgers on the understanding that they would become her lovers. Herman was the sole exception.

“Oh, she propositioned him too,” says Blackburn cheerfully, “but he was the only one who wouldn’t have it. He wouldn’t even kiss her.”

Needy, rapacious and wildly jealous of her daughter’s youthful looks and sexuality, de Meric rates pretty high on the scale of nightmare mothers. Not that Blackburn’s father Thomas – a poet and alcoholic addicted to barbiturates strong enough to “tran-quillise a rhinoceros” was a model of paternal reassurance either. She still remembers the “tick tock” sound of his cough that would signal an outburst of violence.

Blackburn’s just-published memoir of growing up amid the wild excesses of the postwar avant-garde, The Three of Us, is by turns hilarious, saddening and shocking.

Her parents and their friends – who included the painter Francis Bacon, with whom her father had a brief homosexual fling – lived in a haze of vodka, cigarette smoke, love affairs and vicious rows.

“Years later, I met the poet Michael Hamburger, who’d been a friend of my father’s, and he said to me in his wonderful, lugubrious voice, ‘Oh, hello, I didn’t think you’d ever survive,’” says Blackburn.

“It absolutely couldn’t happen today – you’d have an army of social workers knocking on the door. You couldn’t have a 12-year-old walk into a room and someone say, ‘God, look at those tits,’ but this was the height of the bohemian sexual revolution and Lolita had just been published. Then there was the pill: the pill came along and if you didn’t want to go to bed with someone, you were frigid.”

Blackburn’s childhood was punctuated by dramatic clashes between her parents. She says she was used as a shield, sometimes literally so: her father once slapped her by mistake and apologised, saying, “Sorry, I meant to hit your mother.”

She remembers him chasing her mother around the table with a carving knife, shouting, “You are the angel of death and I must kill you!”

Her mother, when not screaming at him, could be sociable and fun, even if she did insist on showing her daughter photographs of herself in the nude and telling her she enjoyed hearing other people having sex.

“To a degree the drama that characterised their lives was a bit of a show, a bit of grand guignol,” says Blackburn, “but always with a sense of danger, the real possibility of blood on the floor.”

Their complex family relationships stretched far into the past. Blackburn’s father had hated his own father and her mother had been forced to vie for her parents’ attention with her sister, which Blackburn believes programmed her to see another female as a rival, even her own daughter.

A diary that her mother kept around the time of Blackburn’s birth records that when the baby arrived, she was engulfed not in a wave of maternal love but “a wave of ambiva-lence” and was overcome with resentment at the demands that were being made of her. “She must have had postnatal depression, but there was no one there to reassure her and say, ‘it’s all right’. She was spinning, completely,” says Blackburn.

As an artist, de Meric was tortured by the “exasperating boredom” of motherhood. As a woman, she felt rejected as her husband was out all day and frequently much of the night. “The more she wept and protested and said she felt betrayed, the more indignant and unfaithful my father became,” Blackburn says.

De Meric got her own back with a number of casual affairs – when Blackburn became involved with Francis Bacon, for instance, she took up with a Sikh called Kuldeep – but it was after her marriage finally broke down that she embarked on her sexual adventures in earnest.

Bob, their first lodger, moved in when Blackburn was 13, a year older than the fictional Lolita. Her mother was instantly in love with him, but furious when he gave Blackburn a bottle of Je Reviens perfume for Christmas. Bob left a few weeks later.

Blackburn’s mother was terrified that her men friends would fall in love with her daughter and frequently accused her of leading them on.

In 1964, Geoffrey, a lecturer in interior design with a failed marriage and two young children of his own, moved in. Blackburn’s mother was in a state of wild excitement after they first made love. She told her daughter he’d said he’d “never stroked such smooth thighs in his life”. Their affair was to last several years, but in the end the inevitable happened – Blackburn became his lover too.

“It’s simple human nature, if you’re accused of a crime that you haven’t committed, it’s a great sense of relief when you commit the crime. Then at least you’ve got the playing field set out, you’ve both got your weapons,” she says. “There was an element of wanting to ally myself with him against her and I was just terribly angry with her. In the end I thought, screw you.”

In the midst of all the drama, Herman moved in. He was an aspiring young novelist from Holland “with dark, curly hair, twinkling eyes and a walrus moustache”. After a particularly bitter quarrel with her mother, Blackburn was in an emotional state one night when her mother led her to Herman’s bedroom, pushed her inside and shut the door.

He comforted her and they ended up making love. “Well?” her mother asked next morning. “You don’t need to worry, I haven’t slept with him. He’s not really my type and anyway, darling, I got him for you!”

It goes without saying that it all ended in disaster. Blackburn’s relationship with Herman – which was to continue intermittently for six years and much later result in marriage – was overshadowed by her need to be with Geoffrey, who eventually committed suicide. Mother and daughter were estranged for years afterwards.

Yet Blackburn was barely out of her teens when all this happened and it was only when her own daughter, Natasha, reached the age of 18 that she realised how horrifying the impact of it all must have been. “I looked at her and thought, damn I was so young –I was shocked when I saw the parallel.”

She seems remarkably well balanced now, frequently laughing when she recalls the madness of her youth, but “if I’d stopped to think too much, it would have been too much . . . andI believed in walking out of one room and into another”.

Though she is now married to Herman, she first married Hein, another Dutchman, and had two children, Natasha, now 29, and Martin, 24. While her marriage to Hein was relatively brief, the experience of her own childhood made her want as stable an environment for her own children as possible. “I probably went too far the other way,” she says. “I am sure I left it far too late to talk to my daughter about the facts of life.”

When the children were born she moved to Suffolk, eight miles away from her mother, and they resumeda relationship of sorts. De Meric, always an exuberant character, proved to be an enthusiastic grandmother, “like a third child, really”, says Blackburn.

The past was largely buried, other than for an occasional discussion about Geoffrey “in which we’d be like a pair of cockerels with our feathers fluffed out. I’d say to her, ‘Can’t you see it took two to tango – or three in this case?’.”

It was only in the last months of de Meric’s life, after she was diagnosed with leukaemia in the spring of 1999, that they began to forgive one another. Her daughter’s diary is interspersed with an account of those few months when, as de Meric weakened, her bitterness began to subside.

“We began to talk, properly,” says Blackburn, “and I could look her in the eye and not be frightened. I wanted resolution and we didn’t have the clarity to do it till the end, but five minutes before midnight is just as good as an hour before. It means that you break the spell.”

By coincidence, Herman had come back into her life just before de Meric got the fatal diagnosis – they got married a few months later. Her mother, almost a decade on, she remembers with a smile: flirty, outrageous, incorrigible, right to the end. Well into her seventies, de Meric signed up for an arts course which involved filling in a form that asked for her name, address, age and sex. “Sex!” she cried loudly, much to the amusement of her fellow students. “Haven’t had any for years!”

Julia Blackburn wins PEN/Ackerley Prize for Autobiography

July 19, 2009The PEN/Ackerley Prize was last night awarded to Julia Blackburn for The Three of Us, her frank account of growing up in a fractured bohemian household. Dan Franklin, Blackburn's editor at Cape, accepted the prize cheque on Blackburn's behalf, expressing her delight at winning, and her sorrow that she she was unable to attend, as her house in Italy had recently been struck by lightning.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize is Britain's only literary prize dedicated to memoir and autobiography. It was established in memory of JR Ackerley, the author and literary editor.

Blackburn fought off competition from a strong shortlist that was composed of the following books:

Julian Barnes - Nothing to be Frightened of (Cape)
Julia Blackburn - The Three of Us (Cape)
Susie Boyt - My Judy Garland Life (Virago)
Ferdinand Mount - Cold Cream (Bloomsbury)
Sathnam Sanghera - The Boy with the Topknot [originally published as If You Don't Know Me By Now] (Penguin)

The PEN/Ackerley Prize was presented in the Gallery at Foyles, Charing Cross Road. The presentation was preceded by a discussion by previous winners of the prize, Dan Jacobson and Miranda Seymour, on the pleasures and pitfalls of memoir and autobiography. English PEN would like to thank Foyles, and HW Fisher and Waitrose Wines Direct for their generous support of this event.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize was judged by Georgina Hammick, Francis King, Peter Parker (chair) and Colin Spencer. The award is given each year to a literary autobiography of outstanding merit, written by an author of British nationality and published in the United Kingdom in the previous year. The winner receives a cheque for £2,000. Past winners include Diana Athill, Alan Bennett, Jenny Diski, Barry Humphries, Blake Morrison and Lorna Sage.

Joe Randolph Ackerley (1896-1967), was an author and long-time literary editor of The Listener magazine. When Ackerley died, his sister Nancy endowed the JR Ackerley Prize in his memory.


Julia with her mother

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